Veteran guards serving at Evin Prison’s Ward 350 are fond of feeling sorry of themselves. “All of you go free eventually,” says a guard who has been working as the prison for 20 years. “We are the real prisoners. We are the ones who will always remain here.”
When an inmate experiences a problem in the prison, it is usually the prison guards who pass on these complaints to prison officials. Called “guard officers” at Evin and “ward guards” at Rajaei Shahr Prison, these employees do not enjoy much power of their own and for the most part play the role of intermediaries.
According to Iran’s Prison Organization, there is one prison guard for every 14 prisoners in Iran. Its records show that the first regulations pertaining to prison guards in Iran were drawn up by Swedish advisors in the early years of Reza Shah’s reign in 1928. After Iran’s parliament approved them, the government adopted the regulations.
Prisoners might not believe that being a prison guard is an honorable job, but many people apply to do it. Most Iranians who have spent time in prison have bitter stories and can talk about their humiliating experiences of prison guards. But not all prison guards are ruthless; occasionally there are stories about quiet acts of kindness.
In Iran prison guards usually start work as contractors because of the budgetary constraints of the Prisons Organization, which mean that not all of its employees can be employed on an official basis. After a few years of working for the organization, however, most employees are hired officially and are entitled to insurance benefits. One of the biggest complaints contract prison guards have is that the Prisons Organization refuses to provide them with insurance before they are accepted as employees.
Until recently, the base salary of prison guards was around 700,000 tomans, or close to US$240 per month. This year, that base salary was increased to around $270. The actual salary is based on seniority; those with experience receive higher salaries.
Prison guards are responsible for counting prisoners, at dawn and at dusk. In political wards the counting is done inside the cell block, but ordinary prisoners are told to line up in the prison yard when they hear the wake-up call from the loudspeakers at seven in the morning. At some of the wards in Evin Prison, inmates must sit on the ground waiting to be counted. Another method — called “cattle counting” — requires prisoners to enter one door and exit another.
The guards undergo searches when they arrive at the prison for their shifts; the search is repeated when they leave. In big prisons, employees are required to punch in and out at the main entrance.
The office of the duty officer is also located at the entrance. There is a door to each ward from this area, and the main hall of each ward is connected to the office by a direct phone line. Prisoners use this phone to inquire about visiting or furlough times, to get newspapers and food, and to ask to go to the prison’s clinic when necessary.
If at any time during the day or night the plumbing or the air conditioning breaks down or a prisoner needs medical attention, this is the only way to contact the officer on duty. In fact, the officer is the only gateway between prisoners and the prison facilities and officials.
The job of a prison guard may or may not be very demanding, depending on a few factors. Every ward has three prison guards who work together over a 24-hour shift and are then off for 48 hours. Usually, two work at once and the third guard rests or sleeps. However, during their shift hours, if there are high demands from either side — from prisoners or prison officials — all three guards must be available. Whatever happens in the prison, whether an incident or someone coming in or out of the prison, the guards are required to log details into a special book and sign their name by each entry.
Ali R, a prison guard at one of the wards in Rajaei Shahr Prison, told IranWire that he is happy in his job. He says he receives an adequate salary and, considering the high unemployment rate in Iran, he says is lucky to have a job. “Our pay is not bad,” he explains, “but our biggest problem is the delay in monthly paychecks. Sometimes they delay paying our salary for two or three months.”
Ali says originally a friend of his father referred him to the Prisons Organization. In the beginning, he was very reluctant to take the job, but after a while he came to like it. He says does his best to respect the inmates and their sense of humanity. From his perspective, if the law forces a person to serve a prison sentence then it is not right to further punish the prisoner beyond what the law has already imposed on him.
A Different Story
But many prisoners have a very different story. According to Saeed, an “ordinary”, non-political prisoner at Evin, the inhumane and unjust behavior of some the guards makes prison unbearable for inmates who are sometimes not in a very good mental state in the first place. This kind of treatment, he says, “might even lead the prisoner to think about ending his own life."
“Some guards are illiterate and have not been trained for their job,” says Saeed. “They only know how to be violent. Some were laborers and construction workers before. For example, one of the current prison guards at Evin previously did construction work for the prison and just recently the prison chief hired him as a guard.”
Saeed also told IranWire that some of the prison guards are college students and that inmates who have studied in the same field often help the guards with their studies.
Saeed says, in general, even non-political prisoners are treated badly, subjected to both physical and mental intimidation. “Most of the guards at Rajaei Shahr and Ghezel Hesar prisons treat inmates with extreme violence. They insult prisoners and threaten them with physical harm or even sexual assaults by other prisoners known for being bullies. They threaten them with violence against their families. Sometimes they beat prisoners with their nightsticks and badly injure them. Then they take them to the infirmary and apply only temporary bandages to their injuries.”
Ordinary prisoners have to endure this treatment. They do not dare complain because some guards are in cahoots with the mafia-like gangs in prison. A prisoner who has the support of a warden can have more power than a prison guard. He can transfer a prisoner to another ward in the dead of the night, and can tell a prisoner to beat up an inmate. It is not unusual for fights among inmates to result in bad injuries.
In such cases, guards do not interfere. They do not enter the cell block until the prisoners themselves ask for the injured to be transferred to the prison clinic. The guards justify this by saying that the fights are “internal problems” and their intervention could make the situation worse. Plus, they have orders not to intervene.
Regulations demand that prison guards wear a uniform but in prisons like Evin, guards do not believe that they are duty-bound to obey this rule. In more dangerous prisons including Rajaei Shahr, the prison guards wear uniforms that resemble military outfits to intimidate and terrorize the inmates. Of course, this is mostly for show, because they cannot intervene in important issues. They can only report the situation to their superiors.
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